WEF futures gathering closes with new initiatives from UAE government

Updated 12 November 2017

WEF futures gathering closes with new initiatives from UAE government

DUBAI: The World Economic Forum (WEF) wound up its two-day brainstorming session on future policy with commitments to new initiatives in technology, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) by the government of the UAE.
The annual meeting of 700 thought-leaders from the WEF’s global future councils was formally closed by Mohammed Al-Gergawi, UAE minister for Cabinet affairs and the future, who announced a plan to develop a center for future readiness, and a global framework to assess progress toward it.
He also unveiled plans to create new positions as “future ambassadors” for the UAE, and to work towards global protocols for artificial intelligence and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — the WEF’s term for the rapid technological transformation of society and economies.
“This meeting is a key performance indicator for governments in the world. The commitment to the future continues to grow in momentum. A human-centric strategy, ministerial council and governance framework are now in place,” Al-Gergawi said.
He added that the Global Futures Councils would meet again to assess progress and decide on other initiatives next November. The WEF council on AI and robotics agreed to act as an adviser to the UAE’s new ministry for artificial intelligence.
The meeting also heard that young people in the Middle East expect a “massive disruption” to their lives and work patterns from changes in technology, but that many feel comfortable with living and working in an environment where robots exist alongside humans, according to a WEF survey.
The WEF polled 1,600 people between the ages of 18 and 35 in the summer, and found that 58 percent of them in the Middle East and North Africa expect to experience significant changes to their jobs and careers as a result of technological change, while 52 percent believe that studying and learning will be similarly affected. But 23 percent said they would trust a decision made by a robot on their behalf.
In the same survey, 24 percent of respondents said that they had shared a news article on the Internet or social media that they later learned was fake, with a further 17 percent admitting that they probably had done so without realizing it.
The gathering was told that the world’s cities have to become more active in influencing climate change policy, because they are responsible for 75 percent of global carbon emissions.
“Shanghai, Dhaka, Karachi, Hong Kong and Miami are literally going under water,” said Robert Muggah, research director of the Igarapé Institute, Brazil.
By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be urbanized. Tokyo’s GDP is already greater than that of Russia, South Korea or Canada.
“If we get our cities right, we just might achieve the 2030 sustainable development goals and we may limp through the 21st century, but if we get our cities wrong — we’re doomed,” he added.
“Global decision-making remains dominated by nation states. It’s time to offer the cities a place at the negotiating table. Cities also need greater freedom to solve their own problems by focusing on becoming greener and smarter,” said Muggah.
Jean Marie Guehenno, chief executive of Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said that cities are becoming more fragile, and urban violence is on the rise in many parts of the world.
Regional rivalries in the Middle East and Asia have become more pressing. “A function of the retreat of the US is that all countries feel more on their own,” he added, warning that this rising violence, along with unprecedented levels of forced migration, were posing major risks to developing countries.


Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry

Updated 10 July 2020

Rooftop revolution: Pandemic chill upends solar power industry

  • Executives in US and Europe rely on tech, finance plans in battle for survival

LOS ANGELES: The booming rooftop solar panel industry nosedived overnight when the coronavirus forced homeowners to rein in spending and keep their distance from would-be installers.

Now, in their struggle to survive, companies on both sides of the Atlantic are turning to online marketing rather than knocking on doors, using drones to inspect roofs, arranging digital permits and coming up with attractive new financing plans, according to interviews with 12 executives.

At stake is the future of a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy: solar power was the second-fastest growing renewable source after wind in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

And rooftop installations, which generate electricity used by homes or businesses rather than feeding into the grid, made up more than 40 percent of the market before COVID-19 struck.

Energy research firm Wood Mackenzie has slashed its rooftop solar installation forecasts for Europe and the US by a whopping 30 percent this year, while lifting its forecast by 3 percent in Asia, where China provides strong government support.

Joana Palau, 42, a council worker on the Spanish island of Ibiza, was one of the few in her neighborhood who pressed ahead with a plan to install 12 solar panels on her farmhouse in June: “If I had not been working and did not have the stability of a salary every month, I definitely wouldn’t have done it.”

A housing estate with solar panels in Duesseldorf, Germany. European firms are offering innovative finance plans to entice wary clients amid rising job insecurity. (AFP)

By contrast, large-scale solar installations that power the grid have fared relatively well. Wood Mackenzie trimmed its forecast by less than 10 percent for Europe and barely touched its US outlook as rock-bottom prices, subsidies and government mandates helped insulate larger projects from the pandemic. In the US, the third biggest rooftop solar market after China and Japan, about 80 percent of the 100,000 job losses in the solar sector so far have been at rooftop installers, the Solar Energy Industries Association said.

Many of the staff who were not laid off, however, began to focus on one of the industry’s most persistent challenges: How to cut the cost of identifying homeowners with suitable roofs, and then persuading them to buy panels, executives said.

Quickly, companies made sales appointments virtual.

Leading US installers SunPower Corp., Vivint Solar Inc. and Sunrun Inc. said that reassured potential clients worried about the virus. It also cut the cost of acquiring customers, which Wood Mackenzie puts at nearly $4,000, or 22 percent of the average $18,000 cost of a US system.

Normally reliant on door-to-door visits, an effective but expensive sales tactic, Vivint trained hundreds of salespeople to canvass by phone as its sales slumped 60 percent following state lockdowns, CEO David Bywater said.

By early May, sales were down only 30 percent. “It was a radical shift,” said Bywater, adding that it had hastened Vivint’s plan to diversify sales strategies and cut costs: “I hope we never lose that and we accelerate that.”

In fact, the strategy was so successful that larger rival Sunrun announced on July 7 that it had agreed to buy Vivint in an all-stock deal valued at $3.2 billion, saving $90 million a year and creating a solar player with half a million customers.

Sunrun bought Vivint because of its focus on direct selling, a model Sunrun CEO Lynn Jurich said had become even more durable during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Both companies are delivering above where we expected.”

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Solar panel firms go digital as lockdowns hit sales.
  • New sales strategies cut costs as firms battle to survive.
  • Solar power seen as key driver in climate change fight.

Rival SunPower has also seen a massive shift to digital sales, with about three-quarters of consultations now happening via video chat, up from a 10th previously.

CEO Tom Werner said he expected half of its sales would be digital from now on. He said it was harder to close deals in virtual chats but that was offset by cutting out travel time between appointments.

“Ideally, you have the day when solar is like Amazon, so you can buy and be fulfilled in a very efficient process,” he said.

Sunrun, meanwhile, had to pull its salespeople out of stores such as Costco and Home Depot during lockdowns, outlets that had been bringing in nearly a third of its sales. Within two weeks, Sunrun had moved its field sales team online and launched a promotion offering six months of home solar power for $6. While initial online commitments were lower, the percentage of customers following through was higher.

Sunrun said innovations like virtual sales and automating permits to avoid physical processing by authorities will trim about $2,000 off the cost of an array over the next year or so.

EmPower Solar, a rooftop installer based in Long Island, spent New York’s lockdown on “game-changing initiatives” such as digitising sales and paperwork, and using satellite imagery and drones to inspect roofs, said CEO David Schieren.

However, he said that it was harder to build rapport with customers without face-to-face contact.

In Europe, rooftop solar firms developed more enticing finance plans as the pandemic made clients wary about spending.

SotySolar in Gijon in northern Spain accelerated the roll-out of a “Netflix-style” subscription model. It installs panels and charges a monthly fee though homeowners can buy them or end their contract when they like, said co-founder Daniel Fernandez.

“We have been thinking about doing this for a while, but we brought it forward because of this situation,” he said, adding that he expected to triple installations with the offer.

In Barcelona, renewable energy utility Holaluz has accelerated an initiative to install panels free for people with available roof space — and use them to generate power for all its customers. It aims to extend the plan to apartment blocks and commercial buildings.

Holaluz expects to boost clients to one million and carry out 50,000 rooftop solar installations by 2023. It estimates fewer than 10,000 Spanish homes currently have panels.

“This is the rooftop revolution,” said co-founder Carlota Pi. “We have spent so much time at home, we have become much more conscious of the value you can create by transforming your roof into a source of energy generation.”